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What colleges can do to reduce the high college dropout rate

Last updated: 08-22-2019

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What colleges can do to reduce the high college dropout rate

In the following excerpt from The College Dropout Scandal, author David Kirp shines a light on a huge problem in higher education — the high dropout rate — and suggests ways to solve this issue.

Higher education is billed as the ticket of admission to America’s middle class. That’s true for students who earn a bachelor’s degree — their lifetime earnings will be nearly $1 million more than those with only a high school diploma, and the gap keeps widening as more employers demand a university credential.

But the contention that college is the engine of social mobility is false advertising for the 34 million Americans over twenty- five — that’s more than 10 percent of the entire US population — who have some college credits but dropped out before receiving a diploma. Many of them are actually worse off economically than if they hadn’t started college. While they earn a little more than those who never went beyond high school, they leave college with a pile of debt, but without the chance to secure the high-paying jobs to pay it off that a degree would open up.

Some students leave school because of money woes, and others realize that college isn’t right for them. But many depart because the institution hasn’t given them the we-have-your-back support they need.

The fact that 40 percent of college freshmen never make it to commencement is higher education’s dirty little secret, a dereliction of duty that has gotten too little public attention. When Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, in Academically Adrift, a widely read account of undergraduate life, surveyed more than 2,300 students, they discovered widespread disaffection with their school and inattention to academics. The typical student, they found, studies about seventeen hours a week, about half as much as their peers studied in the early 1960s.

Strikingly, the universities didn’t seem to care. “Faculty and administrators, working to meet multiple and at times competing demands, too rarely focus on either improving instruction or demonstrating gains in student learning.” The priority, for many college presidents, is getting freshmen in the door and tuition dollars in the bank. Meanwhile, professors go about their business, inattentive to the problem — ask most professors about how many students depart their institution and you’re likely to get puzzled looks and an off-the-mark guesstimate.

No one is held accountable for this sorry state of affairs. Nobody gets fired because students are dropping out. A growing number of states have tied funding to graduation rates. Though this pressure tactic is tempting to politicians, such financial incentives are blunt policy instruments that may backfire, making it harder for poor students to get admitted to college because they are worse bets to graduate.

Universities are not powerless to change this situation, but many of them take a hands-off approach. Administrators and professors who cling to the raft of high standards and low expectations contend that these students have had their chance. They’ve blown it — case closed. “Our job is to give you an opportunity; your job is to take advantage of it. If you don’t, oh, well.”

“Give us better students and we’ll graduate more of them,” the apologists cry, but that excuse doesn’t wash. The graduation rate at universities whose students look alike on paper varies by as many as 20 percentage points. To take one example, about 20 percent of Chicago State University’s students earn a bachelor’s degree, while more than twice as many graduate from North Carolina Central University, which enrolls students with similar academic credentials.

The dropout problem could be solved in a New York minute if diplomas were handed out to every undergraduate who sticks around for four years. That’s a preposterous proposal, one that’s worthy of a Jonathan Swift satire, but a Cal State English professor actually recommended something similar to his colleagues. Because black and Latino students live on-the-precipice lives, he argued, simply showing up for class should earn them a B.

Solutions to the dropout crisis need not be so fanciful, for every college administrator with a pulse knows the tools that have been proven to remedy the dropout problem. They don’t cost a fortune and they don’t require a genius to make them work. In short, the more students believe that they belong, the better they do academically. The reverse is also true — without this kind of engagement, “the social loneliness that follows often leads to withdrawal.”


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